If another hurricane strikes South Carolina, Rep. Mark Sanford wants residents in private communities and neighborhoods with homeowners associations to be eligible for help cleaning up debris.
The Republican congressman introduced a bill last week — the Disaster Assistance Equity Act — that would allow common interest communities — neighborhoods, condominium complexes, and cooperatives that share amenities and infrastructure typically owned by an HOA — to receive Federal Emergency Management Agency money without jumping through hoops.
“I think there ought to be equity,” Sanford said Monday. “Storms treat everyone the same no matter what type of neighborhood you choose to live in, so why shouldn’t there be fairness in terms of FEMA (reimbursement)?”
“The simple aim of the bill is to treat taxpayers the same,” he said.
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After Hurricane Matthew struck in October, Beaufort County committed to the cleanup of both public and private roads and applied for FEMA reimbursement on behalf of private communities.
“Before we could go in and start pulling out debris from private and gated communities, we had to go through a highly formalized and time-consuming application process,” Beaufort County deputy administrator Josh Gruber said Monday.
It took more than a month for FEMA to approve reimbursement applications from Beaufort County for cleanup in along some private roads.
Communities, many on Hilton Head Island, had already begun removing debris prior to that approval — efforts that are not eligible for reimbursement under current FEMA regulations.
Gruber said county leaders have had several conversations with Sanford’s office about private communities and FEMA reimbursement eligibility in hopes of streamlining the process in the future.
“We are looking to level the playing field,” said Peter Kristian — general manager of Hilton Head Plantation and a member of the federal legislative action committee for the Community Associations Institute, a nationwide organization that advocates on behalf of HOAs and POAs — said Monday.
Residents in private communities or neighborhoods with homeowners associations “are citizens who pay the same federal taxes as everyone else,” he said. “We feel this is an issue of equity — a fairness issue that’s worthy of Congress’ time.”
Gruber agreed, saying, “If you have a storm event like Hurricane Matthew, everyone is suffering the same. ...
“So, it makes sense that if everyone is suffering the same and everyone is paying federal taxes, reimbursement for all types of neighborhoods ought to be the same,” he said.
Hilton Head Island town manager Steve Riley said Monday that Sanford’s bill could be “very, very helpful — especially for a place like Beaufort County that has a lot of private communities.”
Because homeowners associations are becoming more the norm in neighborhoods nationwide, “the issue of private roads and private communities will be a growing concern across the country,” he said.
Kristian said groups such as the Community Associations Institute are “trying to get broad support from across the country.”
“This is an issue that doesn’t just impact areas at risk of hurricanes,” he said. “It would address areas that face wildfires, earthquakes, all kinds of natural disasters.”
Sanford’s bill is cosponsored by a bipartisan group of New York congressmen: Democrats Jerry Nadler and Eliot Engel, and Republicans Peter King and Lee Zeldin.
While Sanford said he believes strongly in the merits of the proposal, he declined to predict whether it would ultimately become law.
“We’re just at the beginning of the process, and nothing happens easily in Washington,” he said.
The Disaster Assistance Equity Act has been referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure for discussion and a recommendation.
Meanwhile, Beaufort County has yet to receive a dollar in FEMA reimbursement for the more than $34 million in hurricane-related bills paid to contractors.
“They keep telling us its in process,” Gruber said. “But in terms of an actual date for receiving a check, we still have no idea.”